Metro area unemployment hits communities of color hardest, puts state’s long-term growth at risk

Racial disparities in employment are widespread and systemic. It’s true across the country, but it is particularly true for the Twin Cities, where black unemployment hit 21 percent in 2010, more than triple the rate for whites, according to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The Twin Cities ranked second worst among 29 large metropolitan areas in black-white unemployment disparities in 2010, according to the EPI report. And although Twin Cities Hispanic unemployment was relatively low compared to the rate in other major metropolitan areas, it was still nearly double the white unemployment rate, a separate EPI study found.

People of color are a growing part of the state’s population, and failure to address underlying causes of these significant disparities puts Minnesota’s prosperity at risk.

The problem is in part an educational issue. The achievement gap between white students and students of color is well documented in Minnesota – and research finds that individuals with less education are more likely to be unemployed. However, employment disparities exist even when accounting for educational attainment. For example, for Minnesotans under age 35, blacks without a high school diploma had an unemployment rate of 59 percent in 2009, nearly triple the 22 percent rate for whites without a diploma.

We were glad to see a panel at the recent 27th Annual Conference on Policy Analysis shine a spotlight on racial disparities in unemployment. It’s everyone’s problem.

Panelist Carolyn Roby, vice president for Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota, said racial disparities exist at every educational level. “It’s not enough to say that education is the answer,” she said. “We are leaving talent and potential on the table, untapped.”

Roby urged people to address the impact of “unexamined internal bias.” People need to  become more aware of their own biases, and then examine their impact on hiring and promotion decisions, she said.

Panelist Luz Maria Frias, St. Paul’s director of human rights and equal opportunity, raised several issues concerning racial disparities in employment. One was the issue of long-term unemployment. Communities of color are not only disproportionately unemployed, they tend to be unemployed for a longer period of time, Frias said. One way of helping overcome unemployment disparities would be to make it illegal for employers to screen out applicants with a history of long-term unemployment. Excluding them from the applicant pool adds to a vicious unemployment cycle.

Frias also supported policies making it illegal for employers to screen out candidates with criminal records. The legislation, called “Ban the Box,” refers to the part of employment applications that applicants check off if they have criminal histories.

Minnesota was the first state to pass Ban the Box legislation that applies to hiring public employees. The Second Chance Coalition is working to expand it to private sector employers, too.

Criminal history screening perpetuates racial employment disparities. People of color are involved disproportionately with the criminal justice system. As the Organizing Apprenticeship Project explains in its Legislative Report Card on Racial Inequity, those criminal justice disparities are rooted in unequal disciplinary action between white youth and youth of color for similar crimes.

Business, political and community leaders can pursue multiple avenues to address employment disparities. Reducing educational disparities is one step. But eliminating employment barriers that put communities of color at a disadvantage and being vigilant and courageous in addressing internal biases are also important. Such approaches will help ensure equal opportunities for all and help build stronger communities.

-Scott Russell

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